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NATO: Members Commit Themselves -- Again -- To Modernization

NATO's Prague summit ended its first day with members agreeing on another set of commitments aimed at modernizing the alliance and, by extension, improving the capabilities of its European members. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson hailed the result as a "landmark" achievement and said NATO would remain "the embodiment of trans-Atlantic security." But he was unable to unequivocally explain why today's commitments will succeed where numerous earlier pledges to improve NATO capabilities did not.

Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson summed up the decisions made by the alliance's leaders on the first day of their Prague summit as being "not business as usual."

Saying the summit marks the emergence of a "new modernized NATO fit for the challenges of the 21st century," Robertson enumerated the reforms agreed by the current 19 member states.

Central among them is a set of "capabilities pledges" -- the "Prague Capabilities Commitments" -- intended to improve the alliance's military preparedness and close the military gap between the United States and its European allies. The Prague commitments follow pledges made in 1999 to rectify crucial strategic shortfalls. NATO officials later admitted these were an outright failure -- largely because the European members failed to sufficiently increase defense spending.

Robertson indicated today's Prague Capabilities Commitments have radically reduced the number of the more than 50 pledges made three years ago. They now identify only the most urgent areas in which the European allies need to improve in order to stand a chance of remaining credible partners with the United States. "NATO's presidents and prime ministers have today each made a firm political commitment -- the Prague Capabilities Commitment -- to deliver specific essential military enhancement from heavy transport aircraft through air tankers to precision-guided weapons and protection against chemical and biological weapons. These are decisions, not just declarations."

There are now eight priority categories: strategic airlift; air-to-air refueling; deployable command-and-control and communications systems; deployable combat support; defense against nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-weapon attacks; precision-guided weapons; and NATO ground surveillance.

Last week, a NATO official told journalists in Brussels that the new commitments would be different from earlier pledges as they contain individual promises made by individual countries. Today, however, no concrete examples were mentioned either publicly or privately.

Another important decision, Robertson said, was to create a "NATO Response Force" of 20,000 troops deployable in seven days. He said this is "a cutting-edge addition to NATO's existing force structure." In parallel, a "major" streamlining of alliance command arrangements was agreed.

Today's summit declaration says the new force will not reach full operational capability before October 2006. An official said a number of NATO member states had insisted the force be created in "full synergy" with the EU's efforts to field a rapid-reaction force of 60,000 men by next year.

NATO leaders also agreed to hold joint NATO-EU war games in 2003, although it remains unclear which forces the EU can field in the continuing absence of an agreement allowing it access to crucial NATO material and assets. A NATO official today said agreement between EU and NATO on the issue is still blocked by Turkey, adding that the joint military exercise should be seen as a "positive step" to try and facilitate agreement.

George Robertson spent much of the question-and-answer session of his news conference today trying to silence critics questioning whether NATO's European members have the will to deliver on their promises. "The difference between the decisions of Prague and the declarations of previous years is very clear -- that we intend to get these capabilities, the nations have signed up to them and today in the summit meeting itself people made it clear that they want to provide the capabilities because they know what the capabilities are for."

As final proof, Robertson said nine NATO countries had indicated they would increase defense expenditure, mentioning France, Portugal, Norway, as well as recent members the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. One country conspicuously absent from the list is Germany, NATO's largest European ally, whose yearly defense expenditure is less than the U.S.'s $48 billion one-off annual defense budget increase this year.